The past is a place where memory and imagination meet, blurring your perception of the self into something half-remembered and half-created.
Unfortunately, this place can often call to us, inviting us in and letting us drown in something that is no longer real.
As one of my favorite spiritual teachers, Eckhart Tolle, once said:
“All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry – all forms of fear – are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of non-forgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.”
The latter – too much past – is what we’ll focus on today.
These are the 7 things people usually dwell on when they’re living in the past.
1) Grudges that inspire feelings of spite
Spite is a powerful feeling.
It’s what often keeps us going when hope is dying down – achieving your dreams and imagining the faces of everyone who told you there was no way in hell you could do it is…priceless.
But is it, though?
Are you sure reality would be as satisfying as your imagination?
Hear me out. It’s been ten years since that classmate laughed at you and said you’d never make it as an artist. Now that you are one, you might think letting him see your success would feel absolutely amazing.
But the truth is, he’s probably already forgotten he’d said something like that in the first place.
He’s moved on. And here you are, still feeling spiteful instead of cherishing your success for what it is.
You are living in a world where this person’s old version would see you shine and feel silly for ever doubting you. But that version doesn’t exist anymore. In fact, their current life is so detached from yours that what they’d think or how they’d feel about you is completely irrelevant.
Spite can only get you so far. True enjoyment comes from focusing on yourself in the present moment.
2) Regrets about things you can never take back
Look, we’ve all done something not exactly…great.
I’ve said things I didn’t mean. Done stuff that hurt others. And looking back, I do see where I went wrong.
But I also have the grace to forgive myself. Do you know why?
Because I didn’t know any better. And while this doesn’t excuse the behavior itself by any means, while it doesn’t take away the pain or the wrongness, it helps to understand.
We all go through life unprepared. It’s all about trial and error, and sometimes, you’re just going to get it wrong.
But what matters is that you learn from it and grow. What matters is that you don’t repeat the same mistake over and over again. What matters is that when you look back on your life, you can see all the versions you grew into and out of as you progressed on your journey.
Everything you’ve done has led you here. There is nothing you can do about the past; there is everything you can do about the present.
3) What ifs
“What if I didn’t drop out of uni?”
“What if I took that acting opportunity when I was twelve?”
“What if I moved to Norway instead of California when I had the chance?”
What ifs are pointless; they are portals to worlds we can never enter, and so they just mockingly stare us in the face.
My advice is to look at them, accept that those parallel universes are not meant to be, and then keep thriving in the one you’re experiencing right here, right now.
Sometimes, I wonder what would have happened if I chose to continue studying French at university instead of German. I would have gone on my year abroad in France; I would have been fluent in the language I love; I would have made completely different friends.
But the thing is, I love my life. I may not like German as much as I would French, but this single academic decision has formed my life in many aspects that go way beyond university studies.
I don’t know what would have happened if I made B and C choices. And it doesn’t matter because A is where I’m meant to be.
4) Good old days of high school fun
After I started studying at university, I spent years reminiscing about my high school days. I thought about my friends, about all the fun we had, about the comfortable routine that was set up for us.
As I began to reflect on this, I realized that what I missed most wasn’t high school itself – it was the sense of community that inevitably came with it. Once I created a new friendship group in my life, the desire to be seventeen again disappeared completely.
There are plenty of people in their 40s or 50s out there who are still stuck in the past, thinking of their old friends and loves, remembering how full of life and happy they used to be.
But memory is a complicated thing. It erases the good or the bad depending on how we want to remember something.
The “good old days” probably weren’t only “good”. They were full of struggles and worries just as your life is now – just in a different form.
5) The glamour of youth
Similarly, many people dwell on how youthful they once were. And while I’m not the best spokesperson on this one – I’m 24 – even I get surprised at how young I look in my high school photos.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that youth comes with its own pitfalls. We’ve all been there. We all know that no matter how chaotic growing up is, it’s also amazing.
What I will say, though, is that life is set up in stages for a reason. You may not be able to party all night long anymore, but you have so much experience and wisdom your young self could only ever dream of.
When we look at big trees, we don’t think of how old and wrinkled they are. We stand in awe of their magnificence.
As you go through life, you’re growing just like a tree. There is beauty to that.
6) Old loves and friends
It’s strange to realize that friends and loves who once meant the world to you are now nothing but memories.
And memories are oh so easy to paint in colors brighter than the Sun.
You might have had an amazing friendship with a girl who lived next door that you still think about until this day.
You might have had a summer romance that introduced you to the beauty of falling in love, and everything else seems bleak in comparison even now.
To this I say: beware of idealization!
Those relationships were amazing and beautiful, but if they were meant to last, they would have. I have friends from childhood who are still my closest confidants; I also have friends who were once my universe and whose presence in my life is now nothing but the occasional post on Instagram.
Because we outgrew each other. And that’s okay. Some relationships have an expiry date. Let them sleep in the past and focus on fostering new connections in the present.
7) Beliefs you have about yourself
What you believe about yourself forms the basis of your identity. Unfortunately, a lot of our beliefs are built on past narratives that no longer serve us.
At school, I was always the “hates sports” kind of girl. I’d rather read a book or chat with friends than go for a jog.
This subconscious narrative about who I was influenced me to such a large degree that I refused to work out for years and years no matter how much I wanted to try it. I simply wasn’t a sporty girl.
But was that really true?
The moment I challenged that belief and finally bought myself a gym membership, I realized I’d been keeping myself stuck in a story that benefited no one.
I didn’t want a label anymore. It didn’t matter if I was “sporty” or not. My fitness wasn’t limited by some abstract categories about my personhood.
What beliefs are keeping you stuck in the past? Try and challenge them. You might be surprised at how much you grow as a result.